Talk of innovation and the need for cross-pollination to break down stove-pipes is widespread in today’s Air Force, but it is sometimes difficult for those in the field to see beyond the strategic messaging to embrace the operational importance of these concepts. In this review of The Hunter Killers: The Extraordinary Story of the First Wild Weasels, the Mavericks Who Flew the Most Dangerous Missions of the Vietnam War, Squadron Leader Jimmy draws our attention to the reality of wartime innovation and how a blending of the tribes laid the foundation for a defining capability of modern air power.
“You gotta be sh*#ting me!” This immortal phrase was uttered by Captain Jack Donovan when the Wild Weasel concept was first explained to him. “You want me to fly in the back of a little tiny fighter aircraft with a crazy fighter pilot who thinks he’s invincible, home in on a SAM site in North Vietnam, and shoot it before it shoots me?”
Bottom line up front; those that seek to understand the pressures and realities of fast jet air combat, gain a practical insight into electronic warfare (EW) or understand Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) should read this book.
The Hunter Killers is a collection of gritty fast jet air combat vignettes woven together through a deep knowledge of the subject matter to produce an engaging narrative that is full of rich and relevant lessons for any air power professional. The Hunter Killers is the story of the USAF ‘Wild Weasel’ program from inception as a response to the radar Surface to Air Missile (SAM) threat in 1965, through operations and ongoing development throughout the Vietnam War.
This book covers a broad swathe of issues that pose excellent signposts for a modern Air Force.
Junior members will gain a tremendous insight into the excitement, frictions, brutal realities and the complex science that goes into the application of modern air power in a high threat environment. The explanation of the SA-2 GUIDELINE system, and description of the engagement process for that system in the book’s Prologue is simply one of the best threat lessons available for the uninitiated. Later chapters describe the iterative developments and counter-developments in the cat and mouse game of SAMs vs SEAD; these lessons remain critically relevant in the contemporary and anticipated operating environments.
The ‘Wild Weasel’ program is described in illustrative detail and provides a useful model of agile organizational and technical innovation. The Weasel program is a useful reference for practitioners in contemporary defence innovation; ultimately it delivered a credible, unprecedented initial capability into theatre in a very tight timeline. Operators were engaged with industry partners early in the system integration phase of a rapid capability development and procurement process. Operator and trials feedback influenced a broad swathe of details from ergonomics to antenna types and locations; and it worked.
The Hunter Killers tells us that operators were rapidly integrated in a trials and development program before deploying to theatre as a formed body; B-52 Electronic Warfare Officers, amongst others, were teamed with ‘crazy fighter pilots who think they’re invincible.’ The narrative describes, in revealing detail, the frictions brought about by the unceremonious fusion of these diverse tribes into a crew concept. It highlights the risks of poor crew integration and the subsequent benefits of working as a truly integrated crew in combat.
The narrative offers a warning on capability development without effective integration of threat intelligence and tactics development. The initial ‘combat evaluation’ in Vietnam reflects the attritional impact of the subsequent ‘trial by fire’; half of the crews of the first two Wild Weasel programs were Killed in Action.
The author of the book, LTCOL (Retd) Dan ‘2Dogs’ Hampton, was an F-16 ‘Viper’ Wild Weasel. He is a graduate of both the USAF and USN weapons schools and weaseled in Kosovo and both Gulf Wars. Hampton has 21 kills on SAM sites, four DFCs with Valour and a Purple Heart. In short, he knows his stuff when it comes to combat aviation and killing SAMs, and this lends real authenticity to the narrative. However, his writing style does detract from the quality of his narrative; his manner and tone towards anyone that isn’t a fighter pilot is often dismissive. Suffice to say that of the ‘humble, approachable, credible’ qualities of a weapons officer, he may have underperformed on the ‘humble’ aspect but he has certainly nailed ‘credible’.
The book is based on extensive interviews and engagement with Wild Weasel veterans and reference to a broad range of primary sources, so it is certainly a credible retelling of the Weasel story. In order to provide context to the Weasel story the author takes a couple of chapters within the book to provide the geo-strategic and political context of US operations in Vietnam. The facts are informative in these sections, but the opinions and views of the author are certainly not objective and should be treated with caution.
I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the history of air power, the Vietnam War, or innovation in conflict. It is essential reading for junior intelligence officers and anyone else likely to find themselves in the kill chain.
Squadron Leader Jimmy is a current serving RAAF Intelligence Officer. He has a background in fast-jet strike and EW, ISR and Air-Land Integration. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.